It’s been something like six years since Ciara had a big pop hit, and it’s a tribute to her tenacity that after years of missing the mark she finally created something that connects. For that she, and everyone else, can thank Mike Will Made-It, who delivers the most stunning (those drum beats!) and friendliest track of his career. Not his most daring or deepest mind you, but it’s good that his sound is adaptable to artists who aren’t rapping about how stoned they are. Still, this track could use a little depth, and it isn’t going to come from Ciara, who needed her tenacity for the simple reason that she never was that good, even when she had hits.
DJ Khaled featuring Drake, Rick Ross & Lil Wayne—“No New Friends”
How dare people try to be friends with Drake now that he’s famous? They just want some of his fame and money to rub off on them. He’d rather hang with his real friends, his true friends, the ones he knew before he was famous. He’ll even stick with the ones who can’t really hack it anymore, like Lil Wayne. After all, you won’t catch Wayne hanging with people he didn’t know before he was famous. Except for Drake, of course. But Drake is special. At least, that’s what he keeps telling us. But then, why should we believe somebody who isn’t willing to be our friend?
Just like Michael Buble, Sara Bareilles is an artist I enjoy when she’s being sarcastic, and find unbearable when she engages in sincere uplift. This isn’t horrible, but it pales next to Bareilles’s previous singles, and portends a load of schlock in the future. C’mon Sara, there must be someone who still pisses you off. Maybe you and Buble could do a duet where you really tear into each other.
Lana Del Rey—“Young and Beautiful”
Del Rey’s inability to project or phrase makes it hard to tell just what direction she’s approaching this song from, but I’m going to assume, since this is from The Great Gatsby soundtrack, that she’s pretending to be Daisy Buchanan. Problem is, she sounds more like Myrtle, the gas station owner’s wife who deludes herself into believing that Daisy’s husband, Tom, is in love with her and ends up being killed by Gatsby’s car while Daisy is driving. Myrtle isn’t young and beautiful, and she’s too shallow to have an “aching soul”, but she’s convinced herself of both all the same. Sounds like Del Rey has, too. But she hasn’t convinced me.
Hustle Gang featuring T.I., B.o.B., Kendrick Lamar & Kris Stephens—“Memories Back Then”
Another great T.I. rap (two in a row!), and this time the words are as important as his timing and flow. But B.o.B. is ordinary as ever, and it’s beginning to look like Kendrick Lamar’s misogyny is not only real, but deep. Either that or he’s been doing so many features lately he’s started to fall back on cliches to get by. So, if you feel like it, edit out the T.I. verse for a best of, and hope for a remix with someone equally inspired. Just think what Andre 3000 could do with an idea like this.
Zac Brown Band—“Jump Right In”
Ever wondered what James Taylor would sound like if he fronted a jam band that was really into Jimmy Buffett? Me either, but here it is all the same.
As the weather warms up, so do the charts, and the result is weeks like this, with twelve debuts, and without even the excuse of a big album release or a TV singing competition (the pop-chart equivalent of steroids; they bulk you up, then they drive you insane). There is, however, controversy, which puts no less than three records on the chart this week. Add a YouTube phenom, a non-LP country (!) single, and a batch of new tracks from artists who have been away for awhile, and you almost have a case study in how records make the charts these days. All we need is a track from a commercial, one from a TV show, and somebody who died.
The real secret of Psy’s success isn’t his goofiness in both looks and approach, or his so-called satire (he’s more an ironist than a satirist), but his masterful command of pop structure. “Gangnam Style” was probably the best structured pop record to hit the chart since Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance”, and “Gentleman”, though simpler, is even tighter. It also helps that he knows how to write captivating melodies over his austere beats, and comes up with lyrics that, even if you don’t know what they mean, fit perfectly in terms of sound with the beats and the music. In other words, Psy’s success isn’t just a freak happening; he really knows what he’s doing.
Luke Bryan—“Crash My Party”
This is a surprise, at least in business terms: a non-LP single released at the same time as the album, which already had a lead-in single, “Buzzkill” released a month ago. But then, “Buzzkill” hasn’t done that well (it’s been sitting at 38 on the Hot Country Songs chart for three weeks now and isn’t on the airplay chart at all), and with the increasing power of digital in the country market an experiment like this makes a lot of sense. It also sets up a possible deluxe edition of Spring Break…Here To Party sometime in the near future. But even though I have a soft spot for non-LP singles and think there should be more of them, the mediocrity of this record leaves me cold. For a guy who’s supposedly making party records, Bryan sure does have a fondness for sluggish tempos.
Hunter Hayes—“I Want Crazy”
Remove Hayes’s vocals and what you have is a Nashville session group’s version of Mumford & Sons, or rather what Nashville session groups think M&S would sound like if they were country boys who could actually play. This is interesting. Put Hayes’s vocals back in, though, and all the interest goes away.
Selena Gomez—“Come & Get It”
I’m all for Gomez becoming a dance music diva, but if she’s going to succeed she needs to find better material than this, and she especially needs to find something that suits her voice. She’s trying too hard on the chorus, and the strain shows. The best part of this record is the bridge, where her voice matches perfectly with the music and you can hear the promise in it. Working with Esther Dean and StarGate isn’t going to fulfill that promise, though. I hope there are some RockMafia cuts on the album. They know how to set her voice better than anyone else ever has.
Ray J featuring Bobby Brackins—“I Hit It First”
There are, of course, examples of rap sexism more despicable than this, but not by much. Whatever you think about Kim Kardashian and her version of celebrity for celebrity’s sake (I don’t think about her at all, myself), no woman—no human being—deserves to be talked about the way Ray J talks about her here. That is, as an object (not even an object, but an amorphous thing, an “it”, desired for nothing but sexual pleasure) to be passed around, with the first person to temporarily enjoy its services claiming permanent ownership, even though they’ve long ago moved on to other “its”. In terms of maturity, this song is roughly the equivalent of blog commenters shouting “First!” I just hope Kanye West doesn’t make an answer record: anything he could do would only be stepping down to Ray J’s level, and suggest that his feelings for Kardashian aren’t on a much higher plane.
Avril Lavigne—“Here’s To Never Growing Up”
Written by Lavigne, her producer, her boyfriend, and a couple of song doctors, this is product at it’s purest. I bet her boyfriend wrote the chorus, since he’s shown a talent for that sort of thing in the past, and the rest was filled in from various Ke$ha records. I wonder which of the five came up with the Radiohead line, the only hint of life in the entire track? Does anyone actually shout along to Radiohead, though?
If this record stopped before LL Cool J comes in, you’d have a sincere, if often mistaken, attempt to make sense of the disconnections of southern life, history, and myth. It wouldn’t be a great record, and it would still, especially in the country market, be a controversial one, but it wouldn’t be the laughing stock LL Cool J’s ignorant presence turns it into. I can forgive the clumsiness of his rap (it’s not like Paisley gave him much a of a beat to work with), but not the stupidity of it, which is half ignorance and half the entertainer’s desire to play along and reinforce his host’s point of view no matter what that might be. If there’s a demonstration of anyone’s moral corruption on this record, it isn’t Paisley’s. Not that Paisley is right. Any form of southern pride that embraces the myth of the confederacy as opposed to the reality (face it, folks, your ancestors fucked up, and for all the wrong reasons), should be rejected by anyone with half a brain. Maybe Paisley realizes that, but if so it doesn’t come across here.
Paramore—“Still Into You”
Cutting down to a three piece has worked wonders for this band. First off, it allows them to concentrate on playing up to the strengths of Haley Williams’s songs instead of rolling over them and squeezing the life out. Second, and even better, Williams rises to the opportunity by broadening her approach, widening her emotional palette, and refusing to back down from her view of reality. The end result, Paramore, is the artistic breakthrough of the year, the equivalent, say, of what Soundgarden did on Superunknown, or Lil Wayne did on Tha Carter III. There are a couple of ordinary songs, and a couple of less than successful experiments, but there are no bad tracks, and the best of them are more than great, they’re revelatory. Even when Paramore utilize pop cliches (pomp-rock synthesizers, gospel choirs, ukelele), they make them signify by putting them in service to William’s sarcastic, angry, never bitter, and ultimately optimistic point of view (the gospel choir goes “Don’t go crying to your mama/’Cause you’re on your own in the real world”).
“Still Into You” is a love song, of sorts, but one dedicated not to new love but to a long standing relationship. Williams removes any chance of sentimentality by singing it in a slilghtly sneering but still emotional voice, as if she felt the need to cover up her gooier feelings for fear of making a fool of herself. It’s a perfect match for the music, which rocks up and remakes what would otherwise be a hackneyed set of changes. Williams means every word, though, and the verse about meeting her boyfriend’s mother and then telling him for the first time that she loves him is perfect, even in its ambiguity (was meeting mom wonderful? terrible? The sentiment works either way, and we don’t really need to know). Here’s hoping they can continue in this vein for a long while to come.
WE the Kings—“Just Keep Breathing”
I knew there’d be fun. imitators, I just didn’t think they’d be this bad. But how could they not be, when fun. itself skirts the edge of self-parody? Maybe I was lying to myself.
Scotty McCreery—“See You Tonight”
I wish his material was better, but McCreery is turning into one hell of a singer. It’s not just his voice, which has always been a wonder, but the way he handles it. He knows he sounds best when he’s smooth and controlled, so he makes a point of never overstepping, even on the chorus (he also wisely downplays his lower register, which was beginning to sound like a gimmick). As his voice matures, that control is going to sound even better. Now he just needs to find more mature songs. He’s only nineteen, so it makes sense for him to still be singing material pointed at a teen market, and this is smarter than it appears at first. But in another year he’ll be beyond this sort of corn-fed, safe romanticism. Here’s hoping he’s smart enough to make something out of it.
Fabolous featuring Chris Brown—“Ready”
Brown’s hook is bland and the beat is nothing, but even if they were better I would find it impossible to listen after Fabolous says “get your shit wetty/Oops I mean your shit ready, can’t believe I said that”. I can. Fabolous may not be the dumbest rapper in the world, but he’s certainly the dumbest on the charts.
Rocko featuring Future & Rick Ross—“U.O.E.N.O.”
Decent beat, good hook from Future, a competent rap from Rocko, and then in steps Rick Ross and his big mouth to mess everything up. And I don’t just mean the molly-rape lyric. Ross has become so full of himself that almost every word he utters drips with self-love, so much so that he’s lost the ability to distinguish between what’s “street” and what’s stupid. If he says it, it must be right, right? His product-placing of Reebok (right before the rape line; no wonder they dropped his ass) is on a much lower level of offensiveness, but it’s still offensive, and the rest is nonsense. What’s even more depressing is that even without the controversy this would probably still have made the chart on name recognition alone. That’s how rap works these days, and this is what you get.
A surprisingly good week, even if the best of the tracks are imitations of their betters. It’s interesting that many of those being imitated are relatively new artists: The Black Keys, Miguel, and (next week, via Hunter Hayes and We the Kings) Mumford and Sons and fun. A year or so ago, no one would have thought of any of those people as influential in any meaningful way, but now they’re working a sea change on pop radio, one that may be even more profound than EDM. I’m not saying it’s an improvement, but then pop rarely improves, it just sounds different.
Florida Georgia Line featuring Nelly—“Cruise (Remix)”
Technically a chart re-entry, but since it’s more a remake than a remix, I thought I’d review it anyway. It’s terrible. Nelly would record with Alvin and the Chipmunks if he thought it would get him back on the charts, and this adds nothing while losing all the rough and ready charm of the original. The chorus still works, but that’s about it. Low moment: the southern white boys greet their guest with “What up, Nelly?” At least they didn’t say “Whoa”.
Chris Brown—“Fine China”
Even when his records are good (and this is one of his best), Brown’s past continues to haunt him, and it doesn’t help that he keeps reminding people of it. I don’t think he does this intentionally, but he seems oblivious to what the words of his songs mean. The title “Fine China” immediately calls up images of Brown as the bull in the shop, and when he assures his lover that he’s not dangerous all you can do is cringe. Musically, though, this is just about perfect, with it’s mix of a Stevie Wonder-ish distorted bass line, Michael Jackson-style hiccups, and a striking, if overzealous, string arrangement. The arrangement is too busy, but that bassline makes up for a lot. Brown has obviously been paying attention to Miguel, and decorates his slightly subdued vocals with slurs and falsettos, though not always in the right places. His falsetto isn’t as pure as Miguel’s, either, and his lyrical ideas (or the ones he buys, anyway), are as empty as always, even when they’re not cringe-worthy.
Jonas Brothers—“Pom Poms”
This is fluff, but I like it, which is more than I can say of any previous Jonas record. Their inability to maintain a career at Disney, though probably not their fault (Disney is much better at grooming female pop stars), is a kind of merit badge: they went through the pop sausage machine and came out whole, and maybe better than when they started. In a show of business savvy, they even bought back their masters (can we look forward to de-Disneyfied remixes? hope not). It’s odd to find them falling under the influence of The Black Keys, but that influence not only inspired them to write (or steal) a wicked bassline, but to clean up and focus their sound. And unlike the Black Keys, the Jonases have a sense of humor. “Pom Poms” is sheer nonsense, but nonsense has always made good pop, and this is a giant step in the right direction.
Nicki Minaj featuring Lil Wayne—“High School”
This is not only Minaj’s best single since “Stupid Hoe”—and a lot more thought-provoking—but she even got a rap out of Lil Wayne that follows a single train of thought for more than two bars (is she the only rapper in the world he feels challenged by, or is she the only person who can whip him into shape?). “High School” may be about nothing more than sex and dope, but it’s also about Minaj being in total control of the sex and dope (or, more specifically, taking over her lover’s drug business when he gets arrested), which means a lot. It also tells a story, which I haven’t heard any rap song on the pop charts do in a long time. The music is good, too, beautiful but vaguely sinister. This may be a step that will eventually take Minaj off the pop charts, but it’s still the right direction.
This thoroughly enjoyable piece of imitative craftsmanship provides the answer to one of the great mathematical questions of the age: how many people of average talent does it take to almost equal one Beyonce? Answer: four singers, one three-man production team, and fourteen songwriters. And she makes it seem so easy.
The main symptoms of which are ennui and procrastination, hence the lateness of this. It isn’t just that mediocre records are hard to write about, though they are, but they drain whatever energy you have for writing, as well. And so far this has been a very mediocre year. There’s not a single record this week—and this is the biggest debut week so far, in terms of the number of records—that I have any strong feelings about. It’s been that way for three months now, which is why my Best of the Hot 100 playlist only has four songs on it (and one of those is over a year old). Even though it’s still early in the year, there’s little sign of it getting better. I wonder where the real action is?
Since I’m expecting the usual will.i.am haters to raise a fuss about the lift from Daft Punk and the emptiness of Justin Bieber’s vocal, it’s probably a waste of time to mention that this is easily the best thing will.i.am has produced since The E.N.D., way back at the dawn of the EDM era he helped create. It’s nowhere near as good, partly because it’s a rehash, and partly because of Bieber, but just like The E.N.D. it’s better than most people will give him credit for. Me, I respect him for sticking to his electro guns, and just want to point out that Bieber sounds a lot more alive than Britney Spears did, though not as much as Fergie.
Justin Timberlake—“Pusher Love Girl”
The news that Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience is essentially a contractual obligation album—though for a performance contract rather than the usual recording contract—explains a lot. The length of the songs, for one thing (just like “Mirrors”, “Pusher Love” runs over eight minutes): when you need to put an album together in a hurry, there’s nothing like extended breakdowns, intros, and codas to make it look like you’re giving your audience their money’s worth. It also explains the relative shallowness of the lyrics, and occasionally the music. No doubt Timbaland has a ton of beats and backing tracks piled up on his hard drives, but lyrics, and even lyrical themes, can be harder to come by. “Pusher Love” could almost be a case in point. It features a lengthy and unnecessary orchestral intro, an even lengthier and perhaps even less necessary breakdown and coda, and, in between all that, a B+ level beat and lyrics that add nothing. All the same, this is the best track from 20/20 to hit the charts so far, and a decent radio edit could work wonders. It’s good enough, in fact, to make you wonder why it wasn’t released as the first single instead of “Suit & Tie”. I assume it had something to do with branding the upcoming tour, and maybe to lower expectations for a project Timberlake doesn’t have much of his heart invested in. The question is how much respect he’s willing to lose. He’s certainly lost a lot of mine.
Sometimes I like Tyga, sometimes I hate him, this time I don’t care.
Lil Wayne featuring 2 Chainz—“Rich As Fuck”
A couple of lines suggest that Wayne may have some brain cells left, but then it winds down into the usual rap misogyny, which used to be unusual for Wayne. The beat’s dull, too.
“Another J. Dash production!” Are we supposed to have remembered the last one? I don’t. Though it’s harder to create a one-word hook than it might seem, it isn’t that hard. Besides, Dash doesn’t put anything worth hearing between the hooks. I thank him, though, for reminding me of The Coasters “Turtle Dovin’”. I wonder if Dash has heard it.
Zedd featuring Foxes—“Clarity”
Another small step in the direction of turning EDM into just another form of pop music, as opposed to a revitalization. This has it’s moments, but the music is so loud that the vocals get stretched out of any recognizable emotional range in compensation, which the music, ironically enough, isn’t full enough to hide.
Jake Owen—“Anywhere With You”
For some reason I keep confusing Jake Owen with Luke Bryan, which is unfair to Bryan, who has some brains and is willing to experiment. Owen’s a hack, but country radio must love him because he’s managed to milk Barefoot Blue Jean Night for over a year now, even though each single has been duller than the one before it. Maybe it’s because he’s so willing to pander: the opening line may be the most egregious and ridiculous example I’ve ever heard.
Kip Moore—“Hey Pretty Girl”
Eric Church may use Bruce Springsteen as a symbol of romantic nostalgia, but Moore goes a step further: from his cover pose in a leather jacket, Fender in hand, to the careful, repetitive folk plainness of his style, it’s obvious Moore wants to be Springsteen. That he fails isn’t a surprise, but it’s also for reasons you might not expect. “Hey Pretty Girl” goes on too long and repeats itself too much, but that’s the least of Moore’s problems. The big issue is his inability to break out of the country straitjacket, which forces him to pay the usual lyrical homages to family and motherhood and true love, even though the music is speaking Springsteen’s language of thwarted dreams and diminished hopes. If he wants to be Springsteen, or even get close, Moore is going to need to go all the way. Either that or try something else.
Through most of the first verse, I kept hoping that “Buzzkill” was about Bryan castigating one of his drinking buddies and that it was at least meant to be funny. Once he added the adjective “little” to the title, though, I knew it was another girl-who’s-driving-me-crazy song, with just enough of a twist to make it seem original. The biggest twist is the tempo, which is slow enough to make nonsense of the lyric, and leaves you to wonder if Bryan has figured out where the emotional center of the song lies. The protagonist could be angry, sad, sardonic, whatever, but Bryan doesn’t seem to be going for any of those. He does realize that “wimp” isn’t an emotion, right?
Kelly Rowland—“Kisses Down Low”
Rowland has been on a lot of records that made the Hot 100 over the last year or two, but only one of them, “Motivation” with Lil Wayne, was worth listening to. Two of them, including “Kisses Down Low”, are among the worst R&B records of the last six months (the other is Ludacris’s “Representin’”). “Kisses” is actually the worst of the two, a record so obvious and blatantly pandering it’s hard to believe that anyone with any self-respect would release it (Beyonce has recorded orgasms that are more subtle). I have no idea whether Rowland is running her own career or has put it in the hands of someone else, but whatever the case she’d better find another caretaker soon. If she had been in a group like the Pussycat Dolls, it wouldn’t matter. But coming from Destiny’s Child and having a solo career reminiscent of Nicole Scherzinger’s? Somebody’s making a big mistake somewhere, and I suspect it’s Rowland herself.
Brad Paisley—“Beat This Summer”
The most open-minded artist in the most closed-minded of genres, Brad Paisley finds himself in a bind. He obviously feels the need to expand his music and his themes beyond the limitations of modern country, but at the same time doesn’t want to offend his audience or move so far out that they can’t follow him. The last thing Paisley wants is to come on as an elitist or spell artist with a capitol “A”. Hence the breezy likability of his stronger message songs, such as “American Saturday Night” and “Welcome To the Future”, and the sometimes bizarre tightrope-walking of “Southern Comfort Zone”. At the opposite pole, on a simple, nostalgic love song like “Beat This Summer”, Paisley feels free to pull out all the musical stops, deconstructing the rhythm track, applying decidedly un-country melodic intervals in the chorus, and tossing in sound effects and yet another peerless guitar solo. But by taking the music too seriously Paisley loses track of the song and it’s lighter-weight pleasures. In the end, the two ideas cancel each other out, and we’re left with a beautifully crafted track that doesn’t make much of an impression. Paisley is so smart he’ll work out his difficulties eventually, but I’m not counting on it happening this year.
Juicy J featuring Big Sean and Young Jeezy—“Show Out”
Mid-level rappers bragging over Mike Will Made-It beats have become something of a sub-genre in the last year or so, and here’s another one. The beats are still good, but they’re starting to become repetitive. As for the rappers, there’s a reason they’re mid-level.
Phillip Phillips—“Gone, Gone, Gone”
Not a Lefty Frizzell cover, unfortunately (I doubt if Phillips would even know who he is); just another Mumford & Sons imitation. Phillips is less pretentious than Mumford, and puts a little more variety in his music. That is, he’s more pop. But that doesn’t make him any better. It might even make him worse, if such a thing is possible. Better than the Lumineers, though, for what that’s worth.
This is hilarious. Nelly has always experimented with mixing different genres into his-hop, but over the last few years, as his pop success has faded, he’s started to sound desperate. On “Hey Porsche” he dredges up the old idea of comparing a car to a woman (or vice-versa) mixes in some touches of EDM, tosses a “nigga” or two into the lyric to maintain his cred, and, most inexplicably, copies the riff from “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”. And after all that effort, what does he end up with? A hip-hop version of Train. Maybe he should try something else.
AfroJack featuring Chris Brown—“As Your Friend”
Though it rarely gets mentioned, for obvious reasons, Chris Brown has done as much, if not more, to bring EDM into hip-hop as anybody. Whatever his other flaws, musical or personal, he knows how to pick beats. His biggest problem is that he often doesn’t know what to do with them, penning cliche lyrics around banal, or non-existent, melody lines. On “As Your Friend”, though there still isn’t much of a tune, the lyrics are better, and Brown intentionally plays down as low as he can. He also manages to avoids the defiant self-pity that makes him so easy to hate. He sounds resigned, almost repentant, which is a big change for him. As for the beat, it’s pop on the insane, dubstep side of the EDM spectrum, and far better than anything David Guetta or Calvin Harris have come up with recently. “As Your Friend” isn’t great, by any means, but it’s a step in the right direction.
Emeli Sande—“Next To Me”
Those overpowering drums owe an obvious debt to Adele, but Sande takes them back to their source, the driving martial rhythms of gospel (you didn’t think “Next To Me” was about a lover, did you?). Also like Adele, Sande has the ability to get loud without ever sounding shrill or losing her emotional connection to the song; she can go places other singers wouldn’t dare. I have some doubts about the lyrics, especially the paraphrase of Kipling at the end, but a record this powerful almost defies criticism.
Eric Church—“Like Jesus Does”
Church is so good at what he does that he almost pulls this off. Though I appreciate his refusal to turn this into a power-ballad, which is what 90% of country singers would have done, it gets stolid by the end, and the lack of rhythmic and melodic variety becomes wearing. His metaphors don’t always gel, either. Is a Waylon Jennings song more sinful if it’s on vinyl as opposed to CD or MP3? How would that work, exactly? Church must think it means something, because he repeats it at the end, but all I get from it is that it’s a way of establishing his country traditionalist bona fides without dragging his truck into the song. This is a good thing, but it doesn’t quite work.
Future featuring Lil Wayne—“Karate Chop (Remix)”
It’s a feeling that’s been coming over me for the last couple of months, and now it’s taken an unshakable hold, no matter how I try to ignore it: I dread the idea of listening to Lil Wayne. He has become the worst part of almost every record he appears on (including his own). Here, after being provided a near-perfect lead-in by Future, he half-assedly replicates the flow Future has established, then tosses it aside like something that’s beneath him and proceeds to delivers a few bars of rote misogyny before giving up completely. He’s more than the worst thing on “Karate Chop”; he pretty much ruins it. To compound my despair, last week Kanye West called a radio station to announce that, whatever MTV may say, Wayne is the greatest MC in the game. Which only makes me fear that the two most dominant rappers of the last decade have both lost their minds.
The big news this week, of course, is the addition of YouTube streams to the formula Billboard uses to create the Hot 100. The new system propels “Harlem Shake” to number one (the first time a previously unknown artist has debuted in the top spot), and causes a lot of movement in other areas of the chart as well. Rihanna’s “Stay”, for instance, thanks to an appearance on the Grammy awards and a video in which Rihanna is naked in a bath tub, leaps 60-some spots into the top ten, and songs like “Gangnam Style” get a a new lease on life just as they were about to drop off the chart.
Overall, I think it’s a good idea. YouTube is a far better gauge of popularity than radio, and though the system is ripe with opportunities for abuse, it’s no more ripe that the pre-Soundscan days. We can look forward to a few years of constant novelty hits until the culture adjusts (as it will), but that doesn’t seem too great a price to pay for more accuracy. Besides, some of those novelties will be great.
The most important thing to remember about “Harlem Shake”, the track, as opposed to the Harlem Shake phenomenon or the Harlem Shake controversy, is that it isn’t finished. This is a backing track, a beat designed for someone to rap over (Azealia Banks had her contribution rejected by Baauer, but the freestyle versions are starting to roll out). This is obvious from the huge open spaces in the record, and the way the track drops in volume in the places where the vocals would go. It’s not meant to be listened to on its own, and its sudden discovery and viral infestation of the culture has more to do with luck and the desire of people to be silly than anything else. Even considered only as a beat, though, it isn’t much, though it’s good enough that the right rapper could make something worthwhile out of it. Of course, it’s too late for that; we’re stuck with it the way it is.
“Suit & Tie” has its great moments, but it’s a mess. As a follow-up, “Mirrors” is less of a mess, but it doesn’t have any great moments. What it has, instead, are bits and pieces of 80s pop and soul loosely strung together and stretched out for over 8 minutes of head-scratching mediocrity. It’s meant to be a love song, but the lyrics, and the way Timberlake sings them, create an odd sense of distance from the subject. When Timberlake says he couldn’t have gotten “bigger” without her, what exactly is he referring to? His career? His soul? The length of this song? At the same time, while she’s reflecting him, and he’s reflecting her, they’re both being reflected by a third mirror, which Timberlake says he could watch all the time (I thought he was watching her). Who or what does this mirror represent? God? The press? Timberlake’s third eye? One final question: if your lover reflects you back so perfectly, are you actually seeing her at all?
One Direction—“One Way Or Another (Teenage Kicks)”
I’ve mentioned One Direction’s rock tendencies in the past, and on this charity single they live up to them more wonderfully than I would have dared hope. They smartly play both songs for maximum aural impact, i.e. fast, hard, and loud, and don’t make any attempts to modernize or decorate them. I’m sure it’s something they dashed off in a couple of hours, but that’s a large part of its charm. Also, though this wouldn’t be as big a deal in the U.K. or Ireland, where “Teenage Kicks” was a big hit, it’s nice to know that somebody still remembers the Undertones.
Ace Hood featuring Future & Rick Ross—“Bugatti”
This is fairly ordinary, as might be expected, but I find myself fascinated by the title line, “I woke up in a new Bugatti”, if only because of the mystery it creates. Hood never explains where that Bugatti came from. Since he woke up in it, I assume it’s his, either through purchase or purloinment (most likely purchase, because who would bother to brag about stealing a car anymore?). The question is whether he even remembers how he got it. If he fell asleep in the car, that suggests he was pretty much wasted when he got in. Did he buy it when he was stoned or during a blackout? If so, has Hood achieved what might be considered a higher level of boasting? If he has so much money he can buy a car that costs over a million dollars when he’s wasted and not worry about it, his bragging rights would be somewhere in the astronomical range. $6,000 shoes are nothing compared to this.
P!nk featuring Nate Reuss—“Just Give Me A Reason”
P!nk’s permanently exasperated view of herself and her relationships mesh perfectly with Nate Reuss’s feigned confidence tinged with desperation, making “Just Give Me A Reason” an effective and affecting duet even if the lyrics don’t always connect. Still not sure whether the situation is resolved or left hanging, though that may be the point. Realest moment: when Reuss sings “My dear [addressing her this way, of course, is a sure sign that he has no idea what she’s talking about], we still have everything, and it’s all in your mind”, and P!nk replies in an undertone, “Yeah, but this is happening”.
J. Cole featuring Miguel—“Power Trip”
I’ve never heard anything from Cole that wasn’t mediocre, and here’s another one. Even Miguel’s presence doesn’t help, though it doesn’t hurt.
Joe Budden featuring Lil Wayne & Tank—“She Don’t Put It Down”
This has charted, I assume, on Lil Wayne’s presence, because Budden himself is so negligible I find it hard to imagine anyone would buy one of his records for him alone. Of course, Wayne hasn’t been that much better than Budden lately, and he doesn’t do anything to recover his standing here. He is easier to understand than Budden, but given what he’s saying, that’s not much of an improvement.
One disadvantage to the rapid embrace of EDM by just about everybody is that it has driven a lot of the minor artists who first brought the sound to the charts onto the sidelines (anybody else remember Cascada?). So it’s something of a pleasant surprise to see someone totally new make the charts on the formula. Not a great record, maybe not even a good one, but simpler and less aggressive than a lot of the big name EDM attempts, and hence a more enjoyable listen. I don’t expect to hear from Krewella ever again, but that doesn’t mean I won’t enjoy them while they’re here.
Alabama Shakes—“Hold On”
I wish this was better, I really do. I like to see people with legitimate musical sensibilities succeed, even if they can easily be lumped in with pretentious hacks like The Black Keys or Mumford & Sons. Brittany Howard has a voice, but she has a tendency to play up the worst sort of pseudo-blues phrasing. She often gets it just right, but too often she sounds like she’s either faking it or trying too hard. It would help if she had a more finished song to work with; this one sounds like a rough sketch. And though it’s no surprise that Howard’s vocals are sometimes reminiscent of Janis Joplin, the band’s application of the same earnest semi-competence as Big Brother may be carrying the idea of honoring your influences a little too far.
Something of a blah week, which is probably why it took me so long to get around to it (my apologies). It has, in fact, been a very slow year so far, even though there have been more records entering the chart than your average January, and one of them was from Justin Timberlake. I thought it was going to be a weird year, but now I’m beginning to wonder. So far it’s been tepid. I’m starting to get the feeling that in the future we’ll look back at 2012 as a year full of promise and then wonder what the hell happened in 2013. It’s still early, though, and that’s just a hunch. No predictions yet.
Lil Wayne featuring Drake & Future—“Love Me”
Mike Will Made-It is the hottest producer in rap right now, and the beat here helps to make Lil Wayne sound alive for the first time in months. Doesn’t sound like he’s thinking much, though: his raps on “Love Me” consist of one tired, unfunny sex joke after another, usually with a bad pun attached, and as you might expect he sinks into misogyny before he’s finished. Future provides the hook, and it’s a good one—wish they’d let him rap on it, too.
“Wild For the Night” (featuring Skrillex & Birdy Nam Nam), #82
“Long Live A$AP”, #86
As much as I like the idea behind the A$AP crew—breaking down regional barriers and mixing and matching styles—the reality doesn’t yet live up to the hype. The Skrillex-produced “Wild for the Night” has a great vocal hook, and the chorus moves with a propulsion that’s rare in rap, but the repetitive synth squiggles are weak and corny, and they get worse as the track goes on. As for “Long Live A$AP”, all it proves to me is that the crew has been listening to Frank Ocean (the falsetto chorus is even built around the same word as the chorus of “Thinkin’ ‘Bout You”: “forever”). But everybody’s doing that, and this sounds more like cash-in than homage. Rocky raps well on both tracks, but doesn’t have anything special to say. A$AP has got a promising concept, but they may need a genius to pull it off, and I’m not hearing one on these records.
Olly Murs featuring Flo Rida—“Troublemaker”
“Troublemaker” is as readymade as they come, but it works. I hated Murs’s last single, which was so generic and soft focus it barely registered, but this is catchy and bouncy, with just enough personality to stick in your head. Flo Rida, who knows better than anyone how to jump start a hook, adds a little edge to the proceedings; it’s one of the few cases where a rap improves a record rather than making it worse.
Darius Rucker—“Wagon Wheel”
“Wagon Wheel”, which has been bouncing around Nashville for years, isn’t a great song, but it deserves better than this. Rucker’s only appeal is the gruff but friendly quality of his voice; he seems incapable of expressing emotion, or of knowing how to get at the root of a song’s meaning. He knows the chorus is about sex—at least I think he does—but capitalizing on that appears to be beyond him. I don’t know whether he doesn’t get it or he’s too tasteful, but whatever the case the song is stolid from beginning to end. The music doesn’t help: there are spots where the entire record seems so listless it’s almost dead.
There’s not much new to say about features; they increase star power, they give the primary artist a rest (and sometimes a challenge), they give new artists a chance to make a name for themselves, etc. But it’s worth mentioning that there are five debuts on the charts this week that most likely wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for the features. Three from Rihanna, two from Nicki Minaj, one from Pitbull. All are from new albums, and all are being picked up from curiosity (especially Rihanna’s “Nobody’s Business”, with Chris Brown) as much as anything else.
This is especially true when you consider that the power of a new album to load the charts with individual tracks in it’s first week of release seems to be fading. At one point or another, every song from Taylor Swift’s “Speak Now”, including nine debuts on the week of release, made the Hot 100. But Red only managed to put five tracks there, despite the album selling over a million copies its opening week. The same is true of Mumford & Sons. One Direction, the only other performers to sell over half a million their debut week, and who are singles band if anybody is, only got two new tracks into the Hot 100 (thought there were a bunch more on the Bubbling Under chart). Neither Rihanna nor Minaj managed to get a Hot 100 record from their new albums (not counting official singles like the number one “Diamonds”, of course. Pitbull meanwhile, whose star appears to be fading (though “Don’t Stop the Party” is turning into a hit), barely squeaks into the bubbling under chart, thanks largely to Christina Aguilera and the a-ha sample the track is built around.
I’ll talk more about The Voice when I do the Hot 100 Roundup, but for now I just want to mention that Cher Lloyd, Rihanna, will.i.am and Britney Spears, and Ke$ha have all been prevented from entering the Hot 100 this week by the competition show’s souvenir singles. But then, how much fire power can these guys still have if they would have debuted so low anyway?
Finally, we have the year’s first new Christmas record, a remake of “Holly Jolly Christmas” courtesy of Lady Antebellum. It’s pretty bad, though the horn section is good. The worst part is Hillary Scott’s misguided attempt to sound sultry. When was Burl Ives ever sultry?
Here are the debuts from the charts I’m following at the moment. This list may expand as time goes on.
Loveeeeeee Song – Rihanna (featuring Future) #2
Scream & Shout – will.i.am (featuring Britney Spears) #3
C’mon – Kesha #4
Lean On Me – Nicholas David #7
Gone Gone Gone – Phillip Phillips #12
Who Booty – John Heart (featuring iamSU) #14
Trust and Believe – Keyshia Cole #17
Love Sosa – Chief Keef #21
Feel This Moment – Pitbull (featuring Christina Aguilera) #24
Hot R&B Songs
Loveeeeeee Song – Rihanna (featuring Future) #31
Love Sosa – Chief Keef #38
Nobody’s Business – Rihanna (featuring Chris Brown) #39
I’m Legit – Nicki Minaj (featuring Ciara) #40
Numb – Rihanna (featuring Eminem) #42
High School – Nicki Minaj (featuring Lil Wayne) #44
Neva End – Future #49
Hot Country Songs
Over You – Cassadee Pope #3
Give It All We Got Tonight – George Strait #25
A Holly Jolly Christmas – Lady Antebellum #48
A handful of biz professionals this week (yes, even The Wanted), trying to find a way to tinker with their sound enough to keep it either fresh or relevant (it doesn’t need to be both). Only The Wanted succeed, and their youth probably has a lot to do with it. It’s hard on old pros when the business, and the entire cohort of fans, changes in the matter of a few years—though since it happens every decade and a half you’d think they’d be ready. This doesn’t affect the country folks much—the market changes so gradually that most people don’t even notice it until years after the fact—but boy is it smacking the hip-hop guys upside the head. Ludacris has no idea what to do, and Usher is only going through the motions. Maybe they should take some tips from Kendrick Lamar, whose “Swimming Pools (Drank)” entered the top twenty this week. The success of Lamar—and to a lesser extent Frank Ocean and The Weeknd—may be the most important thing to happen in hip-hop this year. There may not be room for someone like Ludacris anymore. I even have my doubts about Usher.
Ludacris featuring Usher & David Guetta—“Rest Of My Life”
This is worse than terrible—it’s unspeakable. It sounds as if it were made entirely of spare parts: a Guetta beat that goes nowhere, an Usher hook that’s laughable in its feigned intensity and ridiculous “meaningful” pauses, and a couple of Ludicris raps that appear to have been produced by a cliche generating algorithm, and may well have been performed by one (and I thought Lil Wayne had reached a creative standstill). Actually worse than Ludacris’s other current single, “Representin’”, which is saying something. Does this mean that the merger of hip-hop and EDM is already a dead issue? Or can Ne-Yo keep it going all by himself?
Jason Aldean with Luke Bryan & Eric Church—“The Only Way I Know”
The problem with country rap isn’t that it can’t be done well (though it isn’t in this case), or that it represents some sort of cultural imperialism. The problem is that it’s nothing more than an affectation, just another stylistic element for performers to add to their tool kit. When hip-hop and rap took over R&B they changed it completely: the sound, the style, the attitude, the lyrical content, everything. Country rap changes nothing. It’s just the usual rural chauvinism delivered in a sing-songy rhythm, nothing that hasn’t been done by plenty of performers in the past (and much better, too—Johnny Cash, anyone?). So I would hardly call Aldean and his colleagues daring. Besides, Aldean is a terrible rapper, and Bryan, judging by this, can barely speak at all. Eric Church wisely avoids looking a fool by singing the middle eight instead of rapping it. It’s the only decent part of the record, and it isn’t much.
The Wanted—“I Found You”
This is a surprise. After the relative failure of “Chasing the Sun” I expected a rehash of “Glad You Came”, and though this resembles that big hit in some ways, it’s better: less garish, with more variety and a lot more soul. It’s clumsy in spots, but the high points make up for it. The biggest surprise is that two of these guys can really sing. I have no idea which two, but I can wait until they start their solo careers to find out. Since this isn’t selling very well, that may be sooner than anyone expected.
Little Big Town—“Tornado”
Little Big Town is perfect at lighthearted fare like “Pontoon”, but when things get serious and a storm is threatening they can be as heavy-handed and portentous as Carrie Underwood at her worst, even if they’ve learned to tone down the bombast. “Tornado” isn’t much of a song, so they pack it with gimmicks lifted from the T-Bone Burnett school of record production: sparse, hard-edged instrumentation drenched in reverb (there’s a false ending that’s nothing but reverb); lots of echo; off-mike vocals and whistling; and various odd sounds thrown in at seemingly random moments. None of it has anything to do with the song, but it sounds impressive if you’re easily impressed by that sort of thing. I’m not.